An Anthropologist Walks Into a Bar in Silicon Valley

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People have always had to think about how much technology they need......and want

An MBA is no longer the only path to a successful Fortune 500 career. And while a business degree still goes a long way, majoring in the social sciences may offer more than a life in academia.

Genevieve Bell is an anthropologist who, for the last 16 years, has been the in-house big thinker at Intel Corporation. Her official title is "Vice President and Intel Fellow at Intel Labs and Director of User Experience Research." Translation?

"We spend our time in people's homes all over the world getting a sense of what makes them tick, what they care about frustrates them. And using those insights to drive next generation technology development."

It turns out, social scientists are a good fit for this type of work. Intel has a research and development team who are paid to push the limits of chip technology. But if they can't get a sense of the devices those chips will power in the future, all that work could end up off the mark. Bell's job is to ask bigger questions about how and where technology will integrate into people's lives in world where we have the ability to put in everywhere. 

One of the challenges for big companies, Bell says, is "how do you keep refreshing your imagination so that you find and pay attention to the things that don't look like the future you imagined. And how do you maintain curiosity at a company level?"

She has no shortage of curiosity herself. She recently gave a presentation at the New York City Media Lab about the history of robots and the future of automation. (Check it out, if only to find out the origin of the word "robot." Some hints: Eastern Europe, Broadway, Marxism and Spencer Tracy.)

As companies look to find new ways of thinking, graduates with degrees in the humanities might be just what corporate America is looking for.